The seventeenth hole at the course I most frequently play on Long Island, Island's End Golf Club, is a left-curving par five. At the bend, a large bunker encroaches from the left. Fifteen years ago, when I first started playing here, I could sometimes clear the bunker if I really tagged my drive and had a strong following wind. If I managed this feat it was the biggest thrill of my round, and it left me with half a chance to reach the green in two with a fairway wood. Nowadays, unless the wind is dead in my face, I routinely carry the bunker and sometimes reach the green with an iron.
Is this a good thing?It's certainly good for my ego. "I'm not getting older," I tell myself, "I'm getting better. Strong like bull." But in my heart, I know that the biggest reason for the extra distance is my equipment, specifically the hot new big-headed driver in my hands and the cleverly engineered solid-core ball on the tee. On the PGA Tour, advanced equipment like this, coupled with other factors such as fitter players and better agronomy, is already changing the nature of the game. Is this trend to greater distance something we all might soon come to regret?Thus far, I have no problem with how equipment has changed the seventeenth hole at Island's End. It's still a thrill to carry the bunker. But where will it end?Will golf evolve to the point where someday, even for average golfers, the seventeenth is nothing but a driver-wedge affair, as it probably already would be for the likes of John Daly and Tiger Woods?
Distance is a topic much in the air these days. Within the last year the USGA has made several rulings and proposals to limit the distance that clubs hit balls, while various golf pooh-bahs, including Jack Nicklaus, Masters chairman Hootie Johnson and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, raised the possibility of Tour pros using limited-distance balls. Many golf architects and course operators worry that the increased cost of land to build ever-bigger courses will put the game out of the reach of more people—and also fret about the legal problems attached to supercharged balls flying into adjacent fairways and civilian zones.
The issues are anything but simple. For beginners or slow-swinging golfers whose best drives seldom travel more than 220 yards, no conceivable amount of equipment-generated extra distance is going to threaten the integrity of the game; it will only make golf more fun. But for better players, and especially the touring pros, all manner of potential problems loom if distance continues to increase at the rate it has in the last decade. Courses designed to be challenging for players hitting drives, say, 250 to 280 yards would need to be lengthened or otherwise altered at great expense. The sport would change in character more than it already has, from the imaginative, shot-shaping game played by Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer to a game of raw muscle—hit the ball high and straight and simply let it drop on the target. If golf were to bifurcate into professional and recreational versions, each using separate equipment, that might undermine the unique bond that everyman players feel with the heroes of the sport.
But where should we draw the line between what's good for everyday players and what's appropriate for the pros?Is it possible to satisfy all the competing interests in golf with one unified set of regulations?Maybe we don't even need new regulations. Is it possible the distance problem is self-limiting and that golf is in a tizzy over nothing?
The lightning-rod issue is the distance that tour pros are hitting the ball these days. After decades of only modest increases, the average drive on the PGA Tour began to lengthen in 1994, rising some two yards a year until 2001, when it suddenly jumped six yards, to 279 yards. The ten longest hitters saw their numbers vault at a similar rate, to an average of 296 this year. On the Buy.com Tour, the ten longest hitters now average 308 yards; the leader, Victor Schwamkrug, wows galleries with drives that average 325 yards.